International Order & Conflict

Fundamentals of Protecting Civilians

in Program

By Alison Giffen – President Obama has used the protection of civilians as the
primary rationale for initiating military action in Libya, with the support of
the UN Security Council. Libya isn’t the only country in crisis where interventions
have been undertaken with an explicit objective to protect civilians. Ten UN
peacekeeping operations have been authorized to use force to protect civilians
– most recently in the Ivory Coast, where attack helicopters are being used to
neutralize artillery that could be used against civilians in Abidjan. Beyond
peacekeeping, the Coalition commanders in Afghanistan have released tactical
directives on the protection of civilians. 

The U.S. Administration, for political and practical reasons, is
working to clarify what it means by the “protection of civilians,” why it is a
U.S. strategic interest and when and how the concept should be applied.
President Obama began to address these issues in his March 28 speech at the
National Defense University. But messaging is important insofar as words are
followed by deeds on the ground.


concept of Protection of Civilians has primarily been used to describe
activities undertaken during consent-based interventions such as UN
peacekeeping operations mandated and authorized to use force to protect
civilians (as defined by international humanitarian law) under imminent threat
of physical violence. The Obama Administration and the Security Council have
now used the concept as the rationale for the non-consensual intervention in
Libya. Given non-consensual interventions directly challenge international
norms of sovereignty and usually require the application of greater military
force, they are inherently more controversial and carry a different set of
risks then consent-based interventions to protect civilians. The Administration
and its allies would be well served to make a distinction between consent-based
and non-consensual interventions to protect civilians so that the successes or
failures of one do not undermine or artificially accelerate progress on the


the U.S. government has begun to adopt policies to prevent and respond to
atrocities, guidance and doctrine (specific to the protection of civilians) for
deployed military have yet to be developed. With such uncertainty, why should
the United States and the international community risk action?  There are
moral, legal, practical and strategic reasons.

–     In the 28 March speech, the President said “if we waited one more day, Benghazi … could suffer a massacre that
would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the

–     Leaders
have also raised legal reasons, sighting international humanitarian and human
rights laws and nascent norms that outline an international responsibility to

–     “The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been
shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future
credibility to uphold global peace and security.”  (President Obama, March
28, 2011)

The third reason – practical and strategic – is the most
critical. In today’s conflicts, failing to act undermines the legitimacy and
credibility of governments and inter-governmental bodies. A UN or coalition
failure in one arena has implications for its actions in others.

Why is legitimacy and credibility so important in today’s
conflicts? The revolution in communication technology allows the capture and
transmission of real or rumored abuses and atrocities in real time. This
information has altered civilian engagement and influence in the outcome of
war. How the conflicting parties, and international actors that intervene, are
perceived affects how stakeholders on the ground (civilians that can either
support a nascent state or an armed actor that challenges that state) and
around the globe (voters and tax payers that are needed to support politicians
and programs that fund interventions abroad) see their interests.  


international community has to adhere to at least three fundamentals in an
intervention that aims to protect civilians:

1)  Political
Military power remains a
blunt instrument that is primarily designed to defeat an enemy, not to protect
civilians. Although doctrine and guidance is being considered to guide
militaries, sustainable peace and protection of rights requires a political
strategy to decide whether military force is being used to freeze a conflict in
order to bring parties to the table or to mitigate the risk to civilians while
a conflict plays out. Once conflict ebbs, what strategy will bring diverse
stakeholders to the table to find an appropriate way forward?

2) Positioning.
The intervention should provide protection
in an impartial fashion. In other words, the decision on whether and how to
intervene should be primarily based on stopping the atrocity, not on who is
perpetrating it. In the case of Libya, that means being clear that NATO is not
siding with one armed actor or another and will protect civilians regardless of
who is attacking them. Such a position can help deter rebels from targeting
civilians or undertaking offensive operations that may harm civilians (beyond
the bounds of international humanitarian law) and combat assertions that the
operation is being undertaken for spurious reasons.

3) Planning.  
Effective planning for protection
operations is critical to their success. If the protection of civilians is the
principal objective of the operation, then every political, economic and
military course of action must be designed to reduce harm to civilians. Such
planning requires a deep understanding of the conflict dynamics. A very
condensed summary of planning considerations include:

→     Identify
which civilians are at risk, why and what actions they might take to protect

→     Identify
who is threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians, why and how.

→     Choose
courses of action that A) undermine or remove the ability of the perpetrators
to attack civilians and  B) reduce the vulnerability of the civilians at risk.

→     Anticipate
and plan to mitigate potential negative consequences of these actions (in the
short, medium and long-term) to civilians.


President’s 28 March speech at NDU touched on almost every fundamental outlined
above – looking to a political solution and avoiding the issue of regime change
through military power. Thus far, the NATO coalition seems to be following the
fundamentals. But given the fact that several nations in the coalition –
including the United States – have declared that regime change is a national
policy goal, pressures to (a) arm or train rebels on one side of the conflict,
(b) cobble together peace agreements that may be contested, and/or (c)
legitimize governments that may be unrepresentative and corrupt could well
contribute to further violence and abuse. Such actions undermine all three of
the fundamentals outlined above and could tarnish the credibility and
legitimacy of the protection of civilian doctrine, and the coalition effort as

Calls by the United States and allies for Qadhafi to step down
should be separate from the military operation, based on his clear violations
of human rights and/or international humanitarian law, and part of a political
strategy that differentiates between Qadhafi and those directly responsible for
abuses, and others who may need to be included in Libya’s future


Photo Credit: Hundreds of refugees from Libya line up for food at a transit
camp near the Tunisia-Libya border, March 2011 (UN Photo #466627 by David Ohana)


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